Less than a week after President Donald Trump formally ordered the U.S. military to withdraw the majority of its forces from Syria, the Pentagon carried out an unusual mission in the northeastern part of the country. A pair of F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jets delivered a precision airstrike, not to protect a joint U.S.-Turkish patrol on the border or bomb an ISIS haven back to the Stone Age, but to destroy a major U.S. ammo cache housed in a former cement factory that had been converted into a U.S. special operations base and Kurdish training camp. The stated reason: to “reduce the facility’s military usefulness.”
This unusual mission underscores the logistical nightmares wrought by a hasty U.S. military withdrawal from the country. Military sources have told reporters that the sortie, which cost roughly $23,000 per hour per aircraft, was ordered “because the cargo trucks required to safely remove the ammo are needed elsewhere to support the withdrawal.” Army Colonel Myles Caggins, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Syria and Iraq, tried to play the incident off as routine, saying that “blowing the ammo was part of the plan,” but Brett McGurk, a former U.S. envoy to the multinational alliance, tweeted that the mission constituted an “emergency ‘break glass’ evacuation procedure reserved for an extreme worst-case scenario.”
McGurk isn’t wrong. “Trying to destroy munitions from the sky like this does not work as well as air planners think,” John Ismay, a New York Times reporter and former Navy explosive ordnance disposal officer, tweeted. “Some of the weapons you hit will detonate sympathetically, sure. For the rest, you’ve blown open secure storage and made it available to anyone with a pickup truck.”
It’s that latter prospect that should be concerning. In 2017, Trump shuttered a CIA program to arm and equip Syrian rebels, and the weapons and ammo left behind may have helped spur what one researcher on the ground has called an “industrial revolution in terrorism”—and in the midst of Trump’s hasty about-face in northern Syria, even more powerful U.S. munitions stand poised to fall into enemy hands.
That U.S. arms end up in enemy hands is no surprise. A 2017 report from arms control group Conflict Armament Research found that ISIS had captured “significant quantities” of NATO weaponry after looting Iraqi weapons depots in 2014. The lion’s share of “found” ISIS weapons were Warsaw Pact-era firearms and ammo caches that likely originated in Russia and China, but many more foreign-pattern arms “were purchased by the United States and Saudi Arabia” from E.U. nations to equip Syrian opposition forces “without authorisation”—that is, without getting permission from the supplying government to redistribute the weapons. “Supplies of materiel into the Syrian conflict from foreign parties—notably the United States and Saudi Arabia—have indirectly allowed IS to obtain substantial quantities of anti-armor ammunition,” according to the CAR report. “These systems continue to pose a significant threat to the coalition of troops arrayed against IS forces.”
The types of American weaponry flowing into the chaotic region are alarming—particularly, anti-tank guided weapons like the BGM-71 TOW and FGM-148 Javelin missile. The Defense Department made a point of funneling these arms to Kurdish allies in northern Syria at the height of the anti-ISIS campaign, starting in 2017; the Pentagon’s fiscal 2018 budget request included funding for AT-4 anti-tank rockets and other weapons “capable of defeating specific threats that forces are expected to encounter,” as DOD spokesman Eric Pahon put it at a time. It’s not clear what exact chain of custody got those premier weapons systems in Kurdish hands, but at least 500 TOW missiles were reportedly transferred through Saudi Arabia to the Free Syrian Army in late 2015 through the CIA’s covert “Timber Sycamore” program.
As I have previously written, such weapons transfers are the U.S.’s go-to vehicle for shoring up partner forces abroad in order to free up U.S. forces—and when American weapons end up in the hands of our allies, some inevitably end up in the hands of our enemies. In late 2016, a year after Timber Sycamore kicked into high gear, an ISIS force near the Syrian city of Al Bab used guided anti-tank weapons—probably mostly Russian, but possibly some American—to make mincemeat of roughly 10 tanks, three infantry fighting vehicles, and an armored personnel carrier, according to open-source investigatory group Bellingcat. Just three months after the U.S. announced heavy weapons transfers to the Kurds in 2017, video footage showed a Javelin missile and launcher among an ISIS cache of weapons recovered outside the Iraqi city of Tal Afar.
In one case CAR studied, another guided anti-tank missile “was manufactured in the EU, sold to the United States, supplied to a party in the Syrian conflict, transferred to IS forces in Iraq... The full chain of transactions occurred within two months of the weapon’s dispatch from the factory.” Researchers called it “the most rapid case of [weapons] diversion following unauthorised retransfer” they had seen. The Trump administration may have held up delivery of anti-tank missiles to Ukraine this summer over campaign politics, but Islamic State militants had no problem getting one within eight weeks of production.*
In 2017, investigator Damien Spleeters told Wired that the flow of arms, ammo, and other military-grade materiel into ISIS hands had presaged an “industrial revolution of terrorism,” in which militants scavenge munitions and raw materials like ammonium nitrate to engineer newer, deadlier weapons of warfare. To keep it going, he said, “They need raw material in industrial quantities.”
Distributing arms in industrial quantities to questionable actors is a unique strength of the United States, even if counterinsurgency is not. In this respect alone, the Trump administration looks much like its predecessors, who after 9/11 positioned the nation as the largest arms exporter on earth by a wide margin. But with his hasty Syria withdrawal, Trump failed to consider the complications of dumping arms without oversight in the Middle East. He may have handed militants the literal tools to mount a new cycle of violence and chaos.
* A previous version of this article wrongly identified a missile described in a CAR report. The report did not state what kind of missile it was.